NEW YORK — The Celtics have been in New York for more than three days and their performance over the first three quarters Sunday at Madison Square Garden reflected a team that’s been tasting the City’s offerings for perhaps too long.
And then suddenly the Celtics returned to their previous form, and so did the New York Knicks. Boston overcame a listless three quarters with masterful shot making from Jaylen Brown and a key 3-pointer from Jayson Tatum to pull away and beat the Knicks, 113-104.
After Friday’s disappointing loss in Brooklyn, the Celtics again started slow and trailed most of the afternoon against the conference-worst Knicks. They have become accustomed to rallying from deficits and they waited until early in the fourth quarter to increase the intensity.
They responded from a 6-point deficit with a 17-2 run, including a go-ahead 3-pointer from Semi Ojeleye and threes from Tatum and Kemba Walker to take the lead for good.
The Knicks were the better team for 40 minutes but were reduced to being passive and mistake-prone when the Celtics increased their defensive intensity. While Tatum and Brown combined for 58 points, it was the defense against Julius Randle and rookie R.J. Barrett that proved the difference.
“It’s fun when you win, I’ll say that,” Brown said. “However, we can find ways to win, I think that’s what we appreciate the most. Just finding ways to win is the key thing for us and with our energy not as high as it needs to be, we’ll take the win.”
The Celtics freely admitted they are not playing their best and Sunday was a prime example. The Knicks entered Sunday ranked 28th in the NBA in shooting percentage (42.7) but shot 52.4 percent in the first half, even without leading scorer Marcus Morris, who sat out with cervical spasms.
The Knicks went on a 15-6 run to begin the second half and held the Celtics at bay until Tatum and Brown combined for a pair of hoops to slice the deficit to 93-92 before Ojeleye, soaking up minutes for the injured Marcus Smart, tied the game with a 3-pointer.
New York has blown a number of late leads this season and began pressing down the stretch.
“Six minutes to go, we had, I want to say, four or five turnovers coming out of the timeout and those led to four or five threes for them,” said Knicks coach David Fizdale. “They are too fast, too skilled, too talented because they make you pay. I thought, up to that point, we had really played a real solid competitive basketball game, but we haven’t figured out how to close it out. For whatever reason, we tightened up.”
The Celtics seem to have the exact opposite issue, where they begin slow and then wait almost until the end to play their best basketball. The players admitted that was the case Sunday, when they appeared uninterested at times.
“We stuck with it; we stayed together,” Walker said. “Our heart has been great. There are going to be more games like this. It’s a long year, but it is all about how you overcome it. Every team hits adversity at some point, especially during games. The more we stay together, the easier it is for us.”
Brown was definitely more aggressive after his eight-shot performance Friday against the Nets. That was his lowest shot total since Opening Night against the Philadelphia 76ers when he was saddled with early foul trouble. Brown attempted 10 shots in the first half and scored 14 points, finishing with 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting.
Brown helped clinch the game with a pair of driving layups and a tip-in late in the fourth quarter.
“Just being aggressive, whatever the game presents to us, just try to be aggressive,” Brown said. “Last game was kind of a unique game. It’s a long season. We know that. We know we have expectations for this team and it’s a process in doing that. We know we’re going to make mistakes. We’re not going to be perfect every step of the way, but we’ll be positive and continue to move forward.”
Defensively, the Celtics forced the Knicks into making poor decisions at the end of the shot clock and were finally able to contain bruising forward Julius Randle, who bulled over any Celtics defender in the first three quarters and finished with 28 points.
New York was 5-for-17 shooting in the fourth quarter and the Celtics used a super-small lineup with rookie Grant Williams at center to close out the game.
The Celtics said they enjoyed their long weekend in New York, but coming home with two losses would have been frustrating.
“If there is one thing we are going to do, it’s stay positive with each other, amongst each other, don’t let things affect us a group,” Walker said. “I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball, of late. We’re just trying to stay together. That’s all we can do.”